I’m glad I live in a small town. This is where I work and eat and sleep and pursue my trivial small-town hobbies.
This is my town, nestled in a great bend in the river, its narrow streets lined with trees, its uptown buildings gray with the snow, rain and fog of almost 150 years. A tall old brick mansion houses the public library, and the schools are gray with wear except for a new addition here and there.
The marquee of our one movie is big enough and bright enough to attract the attention of our townsfolk, and inexpensive enough to match our small-town purses at least once a week. We even have a place called “Mortgage Hill.” That is what the lesser folk call the street the “moneyed” people live on. And yes, we have our wrong side of the tracks, too.
If one cared to look long enough, I suppose one could find a lot of things wrong with our town, but to me it’s the place that houses all those familiar faces that I see on the street, and all those familiar places I like to visit. To me, it’s carefree because in the back of my head lies the secret thought that I can walk a mile in any direction and find myself in a cornfield or along some shaded brook.
I sometimes think that this face is what brings a sense of happiness to small-town folk It’s all familiar to me, including the thought that I can get away from it if I want to. But I suppose the most important thing about our town is the fact that here is where my loved ones live. Here is the side street, the tiny house and the yard I call home.
We all get bored with it sometimes, and I’ve heard a lot of friends say that they would like to move to a big city where there is “something to do.” Bright night spots and $50 meals hold a fascination for all of us, and we catch ourselves dreaming of big city life, the way we read about it in books. And occasionally some of us do leave. Like Herb.
Herb runs a little hamburger place I like to visit because the food is good and the conversation pleasant. If no one else is around, Herb is always interested in what you are doing these days. But Herb left town about a year ago. He went to a big city.
Of course, he had a lot of well-wishers when he left, and after he had gone the place didn’t seem the same. Even the juke box sounded different. Then, a few months ago, things came back to normal. Herb had come home. Some of us don’t come back, but some, like Herb, just can’t make the adjustment to big-city life.
My closest association with a big town was a few years ago, when I had to make a weekly trip to a dentist in a city south of here. The dentist’s office was on the twelfth floor of the tallest building, right in the heart of the downtown section. The concrete seemed endless, the people too hurried, the streets too wide and noisy. In summer it seemed 20 degrees hotter and in winter it seemed 10 degrees colder than my town.
Its big-city smell was alien, and it made me ill at ease. But I found a spot of pleasure there. One summer day I walked past the library with its big statue painted green by the strokes of weather, and found a bed of geraniums in full bloom. The trees in the lawn had sprung into the first full dark green of summer, and the grass was exhaling a sigh of sweet fragrance.
An old man was sitting on a bench feeding pigeons, and I remember thinking how strange it was that this old man was the only one in this vast city who felt akin to this place as I did. Perhaps it held a breath of home for him, too. It made me think that even in New York, one can still see the sky even if a tree or a geranium bed is rare, and I wondered how many New Yorkers ever stop to look up.
* * *
My home-town street is only two blocks long, but nestled side by side along its short but quiet length are little houses with big back yards, all of them at least 40 miles from the nearest night club. Yes, we are pretty far away from “something to do,” but our street fills with life with the coming of spring, and suspense reaches its highest pitch at our house when last year’s robin comes back to the peach tree.
When a stranger asks me, “What do you do in this town for excitement?” I haven’t much to say. I would feel foolish explaining to him the simple joy we find in last year’s robin and the mere coming home from work each day to a tiny house with a big back yard… to petunias lining the walk… to the old red garage half-covered with morning glories… to the long fence bordered with hollyhocks, flags, poppies and tiny wild strawberries.
I would find it hard to explain the peace that comes over me when I see the garden hose wrapped in long loops over the faucet at the side of the house… to see the cherries go from snowy blossom to deep red fruit… to see the poor old peach tree bloom only with tender green leaves. It would be hard to explain that even in winter, when the snow is deep on the steps and the sun hides from the cold, that there is joy here.
I wonder if the stranger would understand the sweet pleasure I find as I look out my window at our quiet street, and hear birds singing high up there in the old oak tree, and the boy next door laughing while his fluffy puppy chews at his heels. I wonder if the stranger would understand if I told him that I was glad I lived in this town, not so much for the town itself… its people… its gray old buildings… its school with steps worn hollow by the small feet of generations past and present… but for the side street that I call mine… the tiny house which shields me from cold and snow, rain and heat… the long back yard wherin I find my secret pleasures, and my “something to do.”
I wonder if the stranger would understand if I told him that I didn’t care the slightest that I had lived 24 years without ever seeing a real diamond necklace, a movie star in person, and that I didn’t know a soul who owned a Cadillac. I wonder if he could understand the joy that was in my child’s heart that long summer ago, when I ran down the street at four in the morning clad only in pajamas, to watch the sum come up.
These are the things I love and understand about my town, and somehow I know the stranger could never feel quite the same way about them as I do. And I know in my heart that if he told me all the little joys of his big city life, it would work just the other way around. I wouldn’t feel the same about them–not the way he would.
And so, when he asks, “What do you do in this town for excitement?” I look bored for his sake, and answer, “Oh, I don’t know.” And when he asks, “How do you stand it?” I always answer, for his sake… “Sometimes I wonder.”